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Home-front antiwar sentiment soared as ever more troops were sent to fight a fierce guerilla enemy in the Philippine “Black Jack” was caught in the cross fire
August 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 5
The lean, mustached American captain pointed to the document on the table before him. Across the table were a half dozen small, brown-skinned men wearing colorful turbans and brilliant silk trousers. At his waist each carried a long, serpentine kris, razor-sharp, made from the finest German steel. A good many companions, similarly armed, stood a few yards away.
Nearby, American sentries nervously fingered their Krag-forgensen bolt-action rifles. The captain was obviously getting nowhere with his exotic visitors, who shook their heads and glared defiance.
The captain wheeled and gave a signal to two lieutenants. One of them snapped an order, and two enlisted men trotted out of the captain’s tent, one carrying a dead pig, and the other a bucket of blood. The captain knew that his turbaned adversaries regarded pigs’ blood as the ultimate defilement; he ladled some from the pail and held it under their noses. He then drew back his arm as if to fling the blood in their faces.
The visitors shrank back. Then, slowly, silently, they came forward and scratched their marks on the paper, pledging somewhat dubious allegiance to the United States of America. The dead pig and the bucket of blood vanished. Captain John J. Pershing’s frown be- came a smile. Thus, in the summer of 1902, a peace of sorts was restored to part of the Philippine island of Mindanao.
It had taken months of patient wheedling to persuade these chieftains to consider a peace conference. Less than a year before, when a well-armed American punitive force had been sent to Mindanao’s troublesome Lake Lanao district, these little men with their wavy swords and antique muskets had defied the colonel in command, daring him into a pitched battle. The Americans soon found themselves fighting for their lives. Only their superior firepower saved them from annihilation by these dark warriors, who flung themselves at the Yankee rifles in wave after reckless wave. The colonel hastily retired to the coast, and Captain Pershing, who had accompanied him on the “reconnaissance-in-force,” was left in charge of a base camp, with orders to “pacify” the area.
This was still par for the muddling course in 1902, which found America fighting a war in the Philippines —a dirty, vicious guerrilla affair, rife with assassinations and ambushes. At first the generals on the scene and the politicians in Washington had predicted that the fighting would be over in a month or two, but their optimism looked less and less justified with each successive increment in American troop commitment.
The Philippines had fallen into America’s lap when Commodore George Dewey blasted Spain’s Far Eastern Fleet into oblivion on May 1, 1898 (see “The Sham Battle of Manila” in the December, 1960, AMERICAN HERITAGE ). But the United States was not alone in its interest in the islands. European colonialism was at high tide, and the great powers were hell-bent on grabbing any loose land they could find—the better to justify the enormous funds they were pouring into their armies and navies—and both Britain and Germany had potent fleets in the area. But in December of 1898 a defeated Spain ceded the islands to the United States. America then decided to “protect” its “little brown brothers” until they were ready for self-government.
But the Filipinos did not see it that way. They had been running a fairly successful revolution against the Spanish when the Americans arrived, and in February of 1899 they started shooting up the Yanquis with equal enthusiasm.
Americans under Major General Arthur MacArthur scattered the untrained Filipino army in a nine-month campaign. But when the natives shifted to guerrilla tactics in early 1900, the situation became much more trying. To its own astonishment and the world’s, America was forced to commit some 120,000 men—two thirds of its armed forces—to pacify the country.
For a while the Filipinos received some outside encouragement; they were especially heartened by the support they won from distinguished Americans. Intellectuals like William James, John Dewey, and Mark Twain, and politicians like Senator George Hoar of Massachusetts, a member of President McKinley’s own party, formed the American Anti-Imperialist League to protest the war. They compared MacArthur and his fellow generals to Oliver Cromwell, the seventeenthcentury conqueror of Ireland, and to General Valeriano Weyler, the Spanish “Butcher” of Cuba. The league’s magazine urged American soldiers to revolt against their commanders and to refuse to fight. It was denounced as seditious propaganda and barred from the Philippines, which caused still another uproar, this one about freedom of the press.
When the Democratic party backed the anti-imperialists, the Republican administration became keenly aware of the political tiger it was riding. President McKinley issued a directive, effective July 4, 1901, ending military rule in the islands except “in those districts in which insurrection … continues to exist or in which public order is not sufficiently restored to enable the Provisional Civil Government to be established.” But the guerrilla warfare continued unabated; before it was over, Americans would fight 2,811 separate battles and actions.